Community gardens won my heart while living in Washington DC. I was young and bouncing between shared apartments without a yard or open space to call my own until joining a community garden. They were a new trend in DC made possible by recent changes in city legislation.
Upon returning to live in my hometown of Solana Beach in 2014, I was determined to create a community garden on a vacant lot my family-owned. Solana Beach is a progressive town, the land had been ours for over sixty years. What could go wrong?
Our family agreed that the property could be used for a community garden. But at their urging, I went to city hall to ensure that it was legal. At my first meeting, I was shocked to hear the Deputy City Manager at the time say, “This probably isn’t going to happen.” Even though the land had been purchased and used commercially in the 50s, the city classified it as residential in the 80s. A community garden, in the eyes of the city, was a commercial use of the land.
This classification meant we'd have to apply for a ‘Conditional Use Permit’ in order to use the land for something other than a house. Conditional Use Permits are usually applied for by developers and homeowners with deeper pockets than mine and cost thousands of dollars. However, paying for the permit wouldn’t guarantee that the project would be approved.
On top of that, a portion of the property would have to be converted into parking spaces for gardeners because of city zoning laws for commercial use. The street parking directly in front of our property wouldn’t count, because they already counted for Cedros Design District’s parking.
City Hall was sympathetic to starting a community garden but they were hamstrung by the city’s Zoning Code. The code didn't include wording that allows for or regulates community gardens and ours couldn’t be created without going through a regulatory process for commercial developers that is challenging to navigate for those outside of the commercial development industry. Not only that, but the lot was also six thousand square feet too small to qualify for ‘agricultural use’ under older zoning laws that exist from the days when North County was more farm-based.
Community gardens provide an abundance of benefits to individuals and their communities. The current situation with recommendations to stay at home and worry over the nation’s food supply has renewed interest in community gardens along with the philosophy of “think globally, act locally.” Community gardens provide opportunities to learn about the growing cycle of plants, reconnect with the earth, provide food, and learn about the growing cycle. They support both the community of pollinators and reinforces the community connectivity of its gardeners.
With a surge in urban farming and community gardens in the past decade, it is startling to discover that despite access to land and a desire to start community gardens, efforts are often stymied by local zoning laws. Well-intentioned city-created zoning laws can make starting a community garden a discouraging experience in local citizenship.
San Diego County is a patchwork of city codes, some of which are more friendly to community gardens than others. A list of community gardens shows that schools, churches, and a few local businesses and nonprofits host a majority of San Diego’s community gardens. They have the leadership structure required to get a garden started and maintained. Additionally, they are more likely to have a property with an area that can be converted to garden use without disruptions to zoning codes.
The seventeen cities in San Diego County each have their own zoning codes. And each has its own rules for establishing community gardens. For example, the city of San Diego allows community organizations to petition to allow community gardens on city-owned land. It has a program that allows owners of vacant lots to turn their land into a community garden in exchange for a reduction in property taxes. The program has already evaluated land throughout San Diego City and found over three thousand viable vacant lots. If just one percent of these plots were transformed into community gardens, the city could double its number of existing community gardens.
Many San Diego organizations have published materials to help individuals start and maintain community gardens. Victory Gardens San Diego and Master Gardeners Association of San Diego County have held courses geared towards helping people start community gardens. Other resources include the San Diego Community Garden Network, which directs individuals toward already existing community gardens.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, the Cooperative Gardens Commission (CGC) began working to increase local food production. CGC does so by connecting landowners with growers, helping first-time gardeners, and supporting already existing food sovereignty projects, farms, and community gardens.
This type of grassroots mobilization isn’t new to the American people. In fact, during World War II, twenty million US households produced food in Victory Gardens with Victory Garden produce totaling over forty percent of the American diet in 1944.
Just as this war-time mobilization sought to increase food security in the United States, gardening in polycultures (multiple crops are grown together) yields more produce than industrial monoculture (one crop at a time) farms. An example of this is the difference in harvest totals between small farms and industrial-sized farms per square foot. Small farms produce more profit per square foot because they plant a wider variety of vegetables. Meaning, community gardens, by their very nature, offer a higher yield of year-round vegetables than some of the industrialized agriculture that monopolizes our food supply.
San Diegans are ready for change. They’re embracing gardens and the widespread benefits more than ever. City zoning codes need to adapt to better the lives of its citizens through these hard times.
Across California, efforts have been made to increase access to community gardens, which fulfill a wide swath of nutritional, environmental, and mental wellbeing. COVID-19 has made this an even more pressing issue. So these efforts need to be increased to meet our drastically changing world.
Many possibilities could open up should timely legislation be passed. Currently, the laws as they were written decades ago when the world looked quite different hamper efforts to improve urban agricultural communities. Uniform changes in zoning to encourage urban agriculture and community gardens during this time of global uncertainty are needed.